Modi’s India should be on the US’s religious freedom blacklist

Only strong pressure from the US can stop the Indian government from further eroding religious freedom in the country.

India CAA protest AP photo
An Indian Muslim protester holds up a poster during a demonstration against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Kolkata, India, March 5, 2020 (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

On June 10, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released the 2019 International Religious Freedom Report which documents major instances of violations of religious freedom across the world. 

The report’s 27-page chapter on India is a scathing indictment of the sharp decline in religious freedom in the South Asian country under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch.

Noting that there have been reports of “religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs”, the report heavily criticises the Indian government’s policies and actions that result in the erosion of religious freedoms of India’s minority communities.

The report highlights the revocation of Indian-administered Kashmir’s autonomy in August, the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December, undemocratic anti-conversion and anti-beef laws and their gross abuses, and the state’s reluctance to hold Hindu vigilante groups to account for their attacks on religious minorities. “Authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution and filed charges against victims,” it notes.

With the report, the United States officially acknowledges the Modi government’s crimes against India’s religious minorities. But this is not enough. Secretary Pompeo also needs to take policy action to hold India to account. Luckily, he has a list of policy recommendations readily laying on his desk that could help him do just that. 

The case for CPC designation

In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal body that advises the US president and Congress, released its annual report. In the report, USCIRF called for India to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations”. The federal body also recommended the imposition of “targeted sanctions” on Indian officials and agencies “responsible for severe violations of religious freedom in India”.

A CPC designation would confirm India’s status as one the world’s worst offenders of religious freedom, alongside Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China. It would amplify international pressure on India to take the necessary precautions to stop religious violence and discrimination. Moreover, it would allow the Trump administration to show that it is serious about countering religious discrimination, even when the perpetrator is an allied government.

The US has long been turning a blind eye to India’s failures due to its strong economic and strategic ties to the country – India is not only a major importer of US arms, but it is a key US partner against China in the Indo-Pacific region. But the US’s tendency to ignore state-sanctioned rights abuses in India to remain in favour of the Modi government already had disastrous consequences for the country’s religious minorities. 

Confident that he would not receive any pressure from the US, the Modi government instituted national level policies violating religious freedom, especially for Muslims, in the past few years. According to the USCIRF, it also engaged in “hate speech and incitement to violence”, allowing anti-minority violence to “continue with impunity”.

In December, the Modi government passed the CAA, which excludes Muslims from a path to citizenship for religious minorities from its neighbours. Many believe that the government will combine the CAA with the National Register for Citizens (NRC), a headcount that will seek from India’s 1.3 billion people proof-of-citizenship documents going back generations, to target India’s 200 million Muslims.

Millions of bona fide Indians, who do not possess any citizenship documents, will certainly fail the NRC test, as they did in a pilot in Assam state last year. According to the USCIRF, this will put their citizenship status, and all associated rights, “under question”. The CAA will provide non-Muslims in this situation “a path to restore their citizenship and avoid detention or deportation”, while Muslims will “bear the indignities and consequences of potential statelessness”.

In February, several leaders and prominent supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) incited violence against anti-CAA protesters in New Delhi. More than 50 people died in the resulting pogrom. The USCIRF blamed Delhi Police for “failing to halt attacks and even directly participating” in the violence.

India’s Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, a Modi confidante who was once accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of Muslims, directly supervises Delhi Police. In December, the USCIRF had called on the US Government to sanction Shah, due to his role in the enactment of the CAA.

India’s 30 million Christians are also being targeted in Modi’s India. “Empowered by anti-conversion laws and the police’s complicity,” Hindu vigilante mobs target Christians with “campaigns of harassment, social exclusion and violence”, according to the USCIRF. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, the police “often arrest the religious minorities who have been attacked”.

The US needs to realise that Modi’s relentless push for imposing a Hindu nationalist agenda will eventually destroy India’s social and religious fabric and cause internal strife. This will not only cause immense suffering for Indians of all religions but also negatively affect US’ geo-strategic interests in the region. A divided, conflict-ridden India cannot be a trusted economic partner to the US or help it control China’s growing ambitions. It is thus in Washington’s self-interest to press India for greater adherence to religious freedom.

In 2016, Modi told the US Congress that just as “the idea that all citizens are created equal is a central pillar of the American constitution”, India’s “founding fathers, too, shared the same belief and sought individual liberty”. India’s Constitution is a “holy book” in which “freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights,” he added. The time has come for Pompeo to remind Modi of this speech.

It is not easy for the authors of this article – who are Indian-born US citizens – to recommend India to be designated as a CPC. But we support the USCIRF’s recommendation for such a harsh measure precisely because we love India deeply. We believe only strong pressure from the US, and the wider global community, could save India from the dire consequences of its government’s divisive policies, and guarantee that it remains a secular democracy. 

Ahsan Khan, who is President of Indian American Muslim Council and is based in Bay Area, California, is a co-author of this article. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.